Kokopelli – Friend or Foe?

By Don Laine

Of the many subjects of rock art found in the American West, one claims both a name and a gender: He’s Kokopelli, and he’s been found in ruins dating as early as A.D. 200 and as late as the 16th century. The consistency of the images over a wide geographic area indicates that Kokopelli was a well-traveled and universally recognized deity. The figure is generally seen as hunchbacked and playing a flute. His image is still used by potters, weavers, and painters, as well as for decoration on jewelry and clothing. Kokopelli has never been a totally evil character, although he’s frequently been a comic one, and sometimes a bit lecherous.

Kokopelli fetish. hand-painted.
Hand-painted Kokopelli fetish, Coronado Campground, Bernalillo, NM. © 2005 Barb Laine

Until recent times, legends of Kokopelli were still current among the Pueblo peoples of the Four Corners area. Although the stories differ in detail, almost all connect Kokopelli to a fertility theme. Sometimes he’s a wandering minstrel with a sack of songs on his back; other times he is greeted as a god of the harvest.

The Hopi of First Mesa in Arizona seem to identify him with an unethical guide of Spanish friars searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1539. This guide was more interested in making passes at Hopi maidens than in searching for the fabled cities, according to legend, and Hopi men consequently shot him with arrows and buried him under a pile of rocks. Another Hopi village holds Kokopelli to be a sort of traveling salesman who traded deerskin shirts and moccasins for brides. Yet a third Hopi legend has him seducing the daughters of a household, and sewing shirts while his wife chased the men.

The Hopi make kachina dolls of Kokopelli and of his wife, Kokopelli-mana, both of which are sold to tourists. As is the case with most kachina dolls, the figure was represented by a real-life kachina dancer, who used to make explicit gestures to female tourists and missionaries—until the visitors found out what the gestures meant. Many early peoples welcomed Kokopelli around corn-planting time, and married women who hoped to conceive sought his blessing. Single maidens, however, fled in panic.